Famous words that we Americans encounter as little kids in first grade if not before, although without the question mark. Once in college, if we’re lucky, we learn to follow the Polish proverb, “Remember to doubt.” After all, Doubting Thomas, Jesus’ skeptical follower, is the patron saint of education. But, for whatever reason, I never doubted the soundness of this famous phrase from our Declaration of Independence. Then in the early 60s, a new-minted Yale graduate, I happened to read Viktor Frankl’s account of his time in concentration camps, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). There Frankl recounts how younger, fitter men than he, an intellectual, would lose all hope and quickly die. Frankl, whose early manuscript on what he would later call logotherapy, was burnt by his captors, decided to use mental alchemy to turn his remorseless imprisonment into an experimental laboratory. To wit, he used his skill of observation to test out his theory that the worst thing that can happen to a person is loss of a sense of meaning or purpose in life. His motto in effect became, “My imprisoners can harm my body and take away my physical freedom but not my ability to observe, think, and thus have meaning in my life [my words].” In short, the Nazis could abuse his body but not his mind, heart, or soul. In his reflections in the latter part of the book, he suggested that the (American) pursuit of happiness is a red herring that leads human beings astray. Instead, he posed, individuals should attempt to find and follow meaning in their lives. Happiness, he suggested, was a biproduct of meaningful living and not a worthy goal in and of itself...
What’s Civil about War?
Back in the days of the Vietnamese War, we liberal Americans used to joke about what we considered the greatest oxymoron of them all. Hang on! You probably already know what that Greek-derived term means. I’ll admit, I used to think it was a fancy way of insulting someone by calling them a stupid dray animal. But in case you don’t, according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th edition) it stands for “a figure of speech or expressed idea in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.” An example would be “a wealthy pauper.” The English word derives from the Greek oxus (sharp) and moros (foolish). Okay, so ours in the 60s was military intelligence. I mean, what could be smart, let alone wise, about a bunch of trained assassins licensed to kill fellow human beings? Have Judeo-Christian countries somehow forgotten the Sixth Commandment, Thou shalt not kill? A case in point here would be all those weapons of mass destruction that Sadam Hussein was supposed to have had. This bit of authorized inside knowledge was used to justify a U.S.-initiated invasion of Iraq that ended up killing per Wikipedia between 268,000 and 295,000 people on both sides, including countless civilians. Compare this outcome with the 2,996 killed in the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. Speaking of Greek, do we detect a little asymmetry here?!
Some 40 years ago I purchased a book called The Concise Dictionary of Twenty-Six Languages in Simultaneous Translations (Avenel,1981), compiled by Peter M. Bergman. Now although my doctoral field was 19th-Century American literature, I started learning languages other than English at age eight. And speaking of eight, I claim that nowadays, at 83, I can get into trouble in 12 languages and back out in eight. Anyway, language learning/using is my hobby and at this point in life, the dike I continue building against memory loss or worse...
What about Becoming?
I don’t often get responses from my readers to my weekly blogs. After my last one on Doing, Having, or Being, however, a reader emailed me, “So what about Becoming?” “Thank you,” I responded. “You’ve just given me the topic for my next blog.” And so here I am again, and, here, dear readers, is my take on Becoming...
To Do, To Have, or To Be?
This, with a wink to Hamlet, is indeed the question. It is also the focus of the German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s 1976 book To Have or to Be?—a work published four years before Fromm’s death at 80. The book’s description on the Amazon website is quite explicit: “To Have or to Be? is one of the seminal books of the second half of the 20th century. Nothing less than a manifesto for a new social and psychological revolution to save our threatened planet, this book is a summary of the penetrating thought of Eric Fromm. His thesis is that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity. To Have or to Be? is a brilliant program for socioeconomic change.”
In Praise of One-Time Mistakes
Okay, not all one-time mistakes are good. You don’t want your surgeon, for example, making his or hers on you. That possibility is why doctors have malpractice insurance. Still, in general, one-time mistakes can be learning experiences like no other. As a foreign-language learner—right now I’m brushing up on my French and Italian courtesy of DuoLingo.com—I usually remember an idiom in one of those languages best if I incorrectly translate it once. As a perfectionist, I hate making any mistakes. Thus, when I do make one, I’m obsessive about not making it again right away. Somehow my mind goes the extra mile to remember the correct translation, and the next time I usually get it right. But when I do goof up, oy! I’m an unhappy camper, sometimes to the point of uttering a choice unseemly phrase in English. The latter always seem to come to mind instantaneously, and I never seem to screw them up!
Say What? Versus I Say
Mark Twain once said about the United States and Great Britain that we were “two countries separated by a common language.” Even as a little kid I had an ear—and tongue—for different languages and accents. To be sure, I sometimes got into trouble by demonstrating this talent at the wrong times and places. In fact, before going to kindergarten I had already detected that there were people who spoke English differently from how my parents and I did. I had examples near at hand from all four grandparents, my Irish nanny, and our African American housekeeper, not to mention the radio. British accents and a vocabulary that I sometimes could only guess at were an early example...
Being Jewish is a complex thing. I mean, there’s the self-described Jewish people, both the 70% of us in diaspora and the remainder in Israel. As a nation, of course, we comprise most of the citizens of Israel, often thought of as “the Jewish state.” Then there’s Judaism which, like Christianity, comes in a multitude of varieties. At its most strict and prescriptive, there’s Orthodoxy. Then there’s a spectrum of versions, from Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist to the youngest and most diverse form, Jewish Renewal. Finally, there’s the Semitic race, which includes both Jews and Arabs, along with other, smaller groups. So, are we Jews a people, a nation, a religion, a race? At its most universal, we are a people and part of a race. A minority of us comprise a majority of a nation. And in terms of religion, perhaps only half of us are members of a Jewish congregation. The other half, perhaps more, are ethnically Jewish but not religious. Take me. I’m an ethnic Jew, the third generation in America, but as for my religion, I’m Episcopalian. But what unites us all, I believe, is our Jewish culture, and a big part of that is Jewish humor, that capacity to laugh at ourselves and others despite the dozens of nations that have tried to destroy us over the 4,000 years of our existence as a people...
Once upon a time there was this group of warriors from the Highlands of Scotland who somehow found themselves wandering around on the lowlands of Abraham. Their name was MacAbee. You might ask what a bunch of Scotsmen were doing in the Jewish homeland in the 2nd century BCE. Answer:...
Awaiting Our Firmware Download
Recently I became aware of this tech term, firmware. It was in the context of a “recall notice” we got online from Tesla. There was a problem, the notice said, with our Model 3’s windows such that they might open and close without our having played a role in the action. Not to worry, however, the notification continued. Tesla was working on the problem and as soon as they had it sorted, they would send the car—not us!—a firmware [sic!] download to correct it. Meantime, they advised, keep an eye on the car’s windows, So, what, I wondered, was “firmware.” I knew that ancient term “hardware” and had a sense of what software was. But “firmware,” which somehow sounded like a truss or a splint? Enter google.com to the rescue. Firmware, per that electronic wizard, is “… a specific class of computer software that provides the low-level control for a device's specific hardware” (Firmware - Wikipedia). In other words, it is quietly capable of running the whole show...
The Indigo Children
A lot of the New Age ideas that were bandied about in the ‘60s and thereafter were strange, to say the least. Unlike too many of the current conspiracy theories, however, they tended not to be dangerous. Some, to be sure, were just plain crazy. But a few made sense to me. One of the latter is the subject of this week’s blog: The Indigo Children.
Here’s what may be the biggest paradox ever: Life’s primary partner and biggest ally is Death. In a death-crazy yet death-averse culture like ours, that statement may be beyond comprehension. How can death—the final separation of the body from its animating spirit, what French philosopher Henri Bergson (d. 1941) referred to as the élan vitale, be anything but anti-life and therefore bad? This conclusion makes special sense in secularizing societies like ours with no strong belief in an Afterlife or in multiple lives formed according to one’s karma. This is it! One strike and you’re out—forever!..
As I write this blog, the date is November 14, 2022. Just eight days ago, on November 6th, I turned 83. So many of my classmates, both from my boarding high school and college, no longer walk the planet. Less than half of all Americans born in my year, 1939, were still alive in June 2021. So, at this point, I have more good ideas than the energy to follow up on them. Were I in my early 50s versus my early 80s, however, this is one idea I’d try hard to bring into being: a website describing best practices from around the globe in public policy and culture...
My family of origin was Democrat, or at least my dad was, that is, until Ronald Reagan came along. From then on, he voted Republican. My mother never talked about her political views, but I’m guessing she voting the same way my dad did. So, my first real encounter with a Conservative Republican was with my 8th-grade English teacher at my boarding school, Peddie. Mr. Sprout, already elderly at the time, would rant on in class about the terrible tragedy in his view of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In doing so, he would invoke that dreaded epithet, Socialism, a new term for me at the time. He would segue from that to the virtues of good, old-fashioned, all-American conservative values. In between, he taught us boys some of the equally good, old-fashioned values of English grammar and of egregious errors up with which we should not put...
Martha and Mary
In Luke’s Gospel, Ch. 10, verses 38-42, we find a very short story with a big moral. Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. In a certain village they stop at the house of a woman called Martha. In four verses we don’t learn much about her. We are told, however, that she has a sister, Mary. Now given the other Mary’s in the New Testament, we shouldn’t be surprised at how the story develops. Martha seems the one in charge of things, while Mary acts like the stereotypical younger sister. She sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to what he has to say. Martha, busy acting as hosting, gets upset at having to do all the work, while that sister of hers is hearing all the interesting things she’s missing. Martha then does the only sensible thing and takes her complaint to their honored guest. “No fair!” says she. “Send my sister into the kitchen to help me with my work. “Martha,” he replies. “You just don’t get it! Your sister is smart enough to take advantage of this opportunity of a lifetime, while you bustle around and miss everything. Mary’s got it right.” By implication, of course, he’s telling Martha, who’s doing the job of everyday hosting, that she’s got it wrong. This is yet another example of Jesus being counter-cultural by implying that this was not the time for the two sisters to do the conventional thing but to discern how a unique occasion should be met. One sister gets it; the other doesn’t...
My first inklings—actually itchings—of foot problems came in my boarding-school competitive-swimming days some 70 years ago. The culprit back then, appropriately enough, was athlete’s foot. The Peddie School infirmary was more than a match for my issue, and from then till now I wear slippers or zoris when I go swimming and walk with raised toes when the situation requires me to go barefoot. Happily, athlete’s foot has not revisited me since. But the foot, as I have learned in recent years, is liable to a host of other maladies...
My Day with Maya Angelou
It happened sometime in 1986. I don’t remember the exact date. She was 58, I was 47 at the time. The occasion was the inauguration of Northeastern Illinois University’s new president, Dr. Gordon Lamb, who, I soon learned, would come in like a lion. Rumor had it that the Regents of the State University System had selected him to clean up the flakiness associated with our institution, known in Illinois as “an innovative public urban university,” and as dean of the Center for Program Development, I was the person nominally in charge of all that flaky innovation. Dr. Lamb in fact motivated me to look for and eventually leave for a higher-ranking job in another state university, this time in Minnesota. But that’s a story for another day. This is a much happier story and occasion...
I was bummed when our favorite Italian restaurant in Boulder, Via Perla, named after its location on Boulder’s west Pearl Street, closed, a victim, apparently, of Covid. Well, now the space is occupied by a new Mexican restaurant with the happy name of Felix, not to honor the iconic comic-book cat of yore, but doubtless for the uplift in spirits the owners believe you’ll experience after eating their cuisine. I can’t speak from experience, mainly because I’m not a big fan of la comida Mexicana. Of course, I may be all wrong. Maybe the establishment’s founder is someone named Felix. After all, I have a Colombian godson with that name. But this blog has absolutely nothing to do with food, Mexican, Italian, or otherwise. Rather, it concerns the Catholic theological doctrine—hence the Latin—known as the Felix Culpa, or Happy Fall. Even non-Catholics may be familiar with the pre-Vatican II liturgical phrase Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, “my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault” said during individual or congregational confession as one beats one’s breast. Culpa can thus mean “fall,” “fault,” or “sin.”...
That’s one of my favorite Jewish sayings! Given our people’s two-thousand-year existence in diaspora, one can understand our desire to find a safe port and a good home. The Holocaust didn’t help, nor did two millennia of antisemitic words and practices in other people’s countries. As Ken Burns’s recent video documentary on America and the Holocaust made clear, mid-twentieth-century antisemitism in this country kept hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from coming to America and, mostly likely, helped consign them to Hitler’s gas chambers. Modern Israel gives us back our ancestral homeland, but it may be too little too late...
What Do You Put First?
The late André Malraux, writer, diplomat, and sometime French Minister of Culture, once said something like, “All novelists are basically boring: They keep writing the same novel over and over in an attempt to get it right.” That idea can pertain to non-fiction writers, or anyway me, as well. Those of you who regularly read my blogs may remember a recent one titled “How Big Is Your We?” There I argued that the bigger, more inclusive your self is, the more likely you are to include a wider diversity of others as part of your We, your family. St. Francis of Assisi is a poster child for someone with a super-large We. For him even non-humans like Sister Moon and Brother Fox were part of his. In this regard, indigenous Americans who practice the Pipe Ceremony will say “All My Relations” when they pass the pipe to the next person in the circle. Meant here is much more than the nuclear or even extended family. Of course, tribal wars of old indicate that this formula may have been as much an ideal as a universal reality, similar to when we Americans refer to our country as the Land of the Free. . . . Some of us are freer than others, even 160 years after the Civil War.
Holy Ghost, Batman!
I love the old King James version of the term for Holy Spirit. I especially like it when a Brit with a plumy accent, generally a priest, intones the phrase Holy Ghost. It has a certain High Church je ne sais quoi. Of course, the Elizabethan term went the way of all fleshly language once ghost took on a more sinister and less neutral meaning. In today’s America, for example, the older word might conjure up a vision of Casper the Friendly Ghost with wings and a halo: not evil exactly but certainly not what Christian churches have in mind for the Third Person of the Trinity. Moreover, ghosts have become a staple in horror movies, where they are generally not cute and squishy like Casper. There’s even a classical antecedent: think of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s play. So nowadays in Episcopal congregations like the historic St. John’s parish in Boulder, Colorado, i.e., my church, the Book of Common Prayer is full of the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, in whose Name(s) we congregants are multiply blessed during the Eucharistic service...
“It Is What It Is!”
My wife gets upset when I use this term, generally as my response to a bad situation (like when she got Covid from me and couldn’t go on a long-planned retreat with two colleagues). As a hard-working, high-achieving New Englander, she defaults at trying harder and doing whatever it takes to make any difficulty better. Often, she succeeds. In this situation where she didn’t, what she needed from me was some empathy, not stoic philosophy. And she may also be right that I give up in such circumstances too soon, at least some of the time. But as a long-time member of the Al-Anon 12-Step recovery program as well as a writer of books (and blogs) on wisdom, I tend to think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’m sure I write about wisdom in part because I am on a life-long quest to cultivate ever more of it in myself so that I can know the difference...
Toward Global Citizenship
Plato quotes Socrates as saying, “I am a citizen of Athens but also of the world.” That statement occurred 2500 years ago. Now, all these centuries later, we are in the midst of a hyper-nationalist revival. One need but think of Hungary and Turkey, not to mention Russia, China, and the MAGA-fied USA. Even liberal Sweden in its last national election made a smart turn to the right. Consider also that the old-fashioned liberal arts, with their goal of humanizing and universalizing students, have lost major ground in the past few decades to skills training and professional education. Learning about and from Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Caravaggio may be fun and in some sense enriching, but true enrichment of the green, folding kind comes from I.T., Finance, and Marketing majors. Everyone now knows that, with most acting accordingly...
The Marvels of Elision
One of the phenomena—even privileges—of aging is remembering things from our distant past. With me it often comes in the form of a song or even a commercial jingle from long ago, generally for a product that no longer exists like Ipana Toothpaste with its “Ipana Smile.” A recent example: I’ll hear in my head a refrain that doubtless goes back to World War II when we were living in a red-brick house, 48 Essex Road, in the Old Village of Great Neck, Long Island, New York. I was maybe five. The radio situation is something like this. An excited baritone voice begins, “From WGN in Chicago, it’s Don McNeill and his Breakfast Club!” Then Don himself comes on with the daily strains of his theme song: “Good morning, Breakfast Clubbers, it’s time to greet you….” I don’t remember the rest, but the melody is etched in my memory. So, I join in with the Don in my head, and we intone the first line together, he from the shadows of my distant past and me from right here, right now, so to speak. The cliché is we’ll remember, say, the lines of a poem we memorized 70 years ago but then will go upstairs to get something and on arrival totally forget what it was we’d wanted. Ah, sweet mysteries of aging!
Preparing for the Good Life—Part 1
Cultures tend to determine what living a good life consists of. In France it’s having impeccable taste in food and drink and being suave, in England it’s about respecting one’s class boundaries and being articulate in the mother tongue, in Germany it’s being ordentich [orderly and law-abiding] and a good burgher, and in the U.S., it’s becoming rich and, if possible, famous. Yet the concept of the good life goes back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese, where none of the above characteristics applied. In the case of the former, Aristotle proposed moderation in all things while Plato’s Socrates argued for knowledge of and a life in harmony with one’s true self. And in the latter, Lao Tsu called for living in accordance with the Way (Tao), with Confucius insisting on a life in conformity with one’s station in society.